Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Winter Murder Case (1939)

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Major characters:


Philo Vance, Dilettante detective
John F.-X. Markham, District Attorney
Lt. O’Leary of the Winewood police

Carrington Rexon, owner of the Rexon estate
Richard Rexon, his son
Joan Rexon, his daughter, an invalid
Jacques Bassett, friend of Richard Rexon

Staff on the Rexon Estate

Ella Gunther, caregiver/companion to Joan Rexon, girlfriend of Lief Wallen
Eric Gunther, father of Ella, overseer (caretaker)
Marcia Bruce, housekeeper
Old Jed, The Green Hermit, former overseer
Lief Wallen, a guard
Guy Darrup, chief carpenter
Higgins, butler
Dr. Loomis Quayne, Rexon family physician

Guests at the Rexon Estate

Carlotta Naesmith, prominent society girl
Dahlia Dunham, political aspirant
Sally Alexander, singer/impersonator
Beatrice Maddox, aviatrix
Stanley Sydes, treasure hunter
Pat McOrsay, race car driver
Chuck Throme, jockey


Locale: The Berkshires, Massachusetts

Synopsis:

Philo Vance is invited to visit the estate of Carrington Rexon, in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Carrington is concerned about the security of his emerald collection, due to the presence of a number of guests at the estate. His son, Richard Rexon, is about to host a party to announce his engagement to society girl Carlotta Naismith. Carlotta has organized the gathering whose guests are mostly unknown to Carrington, hence his anxiety about his emeralds.

On his way through the snowy roads to the estate, Vance stops and is enchanted by a girl skating on the estate’s pond. She is Ella Gunther, caregiver to disabled Joan Rexon (injured in a skating accident as a youth). Ella is also the girlfriend of Lief Wallen.

While in the woods the next day, Eric Gunther (father of Ella) discovers the body of Lief Wallen lying at the base of a cliff. Vance inspects the body and suspects murder. Some of the emeralds have meanwhile disappeared from the collection. While investigating, a second murder occurs.


Review:

The biography of Willard Wright ("Alias S. S. Van Dine") says that Wright hurried to complete this novel and left it ready to publish after his death. The only thing which differentiates it from his previous works is the change of venue - this one takes place in the snowy Berkshires rather than Manhattan. It has the standard S. S. Van Dine formula: discovery of a body, theft of a valuable object, a love triangle, and the slow process of alibi breakdown. Fortunately, it does leave out the long pedantic speeches on irrelevant topics, which makes the action more concise. A distraction is the batch of one-dimensional filler characters (the "guests") who do nothing more than dilute the pool of potential suspects.

Additional Material:

This book was published after the author’s death. The publishers included two additional pieces: the preface contains a memorial tribute to Willard Wright, and the appendix contains Wright’s (writing as S. S. Van Dine) Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.



Friday, June 8, 2018

The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)


Major characters:


  • Philo Vance, dilettante detective
  • John F. - X. Markham, District Attorney
  • Ernest Heath, sergeant of the Homicide Bureau
  • Gracie Allen, employee of a perfume factory
  • George Burns. perfume mixer
  • Jimmy Puttle, perfume salesman
  • Mrs. Allen, Gracie’s mother
  • Philip Allen, Gracie’s brother
  • Daniel Mirche, Maitre-d at the Domdaniel cafe
  • Dixie Del Marr, singer at the Domdaniel cafe
  • Owl Owen, head of a criminal ring
  • Benny the Buzzard (Beniamino Pellinzi), escaped prisoner
  • Delpha (Rosa Tofana), a fortune teller
  • Tony Tofana, her husband



Locale: New York City

Synopsis:

Sergeant Heath interrupts a visit of Philo Vance and John F.X. Markham with the news that Benny the Buzzard has escaped from prison. Benny had threatened Markham’s life at his sentencing trial years earlier.

Van Dine (the narrator) and Philo Vance head north of the city for an outing. While walking in the woods, Vance encounters legally-blonde Gracie Allen, and they have a long, flirtatious conversation. She reveals she works in a perfume factory with mixer George Burns and salesman Jimmy Puttle.

Later Vance is dining at a restaurant and observes Gracie Allen and Puttle at another table. Meanwhile a man sits by himself observing. Vance assumes, correctly, it is the jealous Burns. Gracie's brother, Philip Allen, works in the kitchen of the restaurant.

While the authorities are keeping their eye out for Bennie the Buzzard, a man is found dead in the restaurant's office - and is identified as Philip Allen. In his pocket is found a cigarette case belonging to Burns, who is then held on suspicion when the cause of death is found to be poison.

Review:

Despite the title, Gracie Allen is not the murder victim. She is a sweet but dim-witted woman Vance encounters in a forest clearing, and much attention is given to their repartee. The first portion of the book comprises more of a romance novel, with Gracie creating her own love triangle; using Puttle as a pawn to get Burns jealous. The middle portion has all the action, taking place at the Domdaniel Cafe, complete with secret doors and red herrings aplenty. Vance encounters the dying Owl Owen, allegedly a crime boss, but much better suited as a philosopher. They engage in a long, protracted esoteric conversation about the meaning of life, which forms the trademark S. S. Van Dine deviation to run the page count up and prevent the plot from moving along. There is a bit of unfair play with the reader regarding the dead man, but overall not a bad title; not withstanding the long complicated denouement at the finale.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Kidnap Murder Case (1936)





Major characters:


  • Philo Vance, dilettante detective
  • John F. - X. Markham, District Attorney
  • Ernest Heath, sergeant of the Homicide Bureau
  • Kaspar Kenting, playboy, gambler, kidnap victim
  • Kenyon Kenting, Kaspar’s brother
  • Madelaine [Falloway] Kenting, Kaspar’s wife
  • Mrs. Andrews Falloway, Madelaine’s disabled mother
  • Fraim Falloway, Madelaine’s sickly, idle brother
  • Porter Quaggy, friend of the Kentings
  • Weem, the Kenting butler
  • Eldridge Fleel, attorney and friend of the Kennings



Locale: New York City

Synopsis:

D.A. John Markham visits Philo Vance and invites him along to an investigation at the Kenting family home, known as the “Purple House”; where a kidnapping has been reported.

Kaspar Kenting appears to have been kidnapped from his room. His window is open, with a ladder found leaning against it. Initial inquiries show Kaspar had gambling debts of $50,000. A ransom note is found demanding $50,000. Is this a real kidnapping, or did Kaspar stage it to get the money from his family? Vance surmises Kaspar is already dead.

The ransom is to be left in a hollow tree in Central Park at midnight. A fake bundle of money is left in the tree and the police watch and wait. A figure comes to retrieve the money - whom I shall not reveal here.

No sooner do Vance and the family return to the Purple House when Kaspar’s wife, Madelaine Kenting, is found missing also - again from her room, with the open window, and the ladder again leaning against the house! Things happen quickly. Attorney Eldridge Fleel is shot at as he leaves the house (by a fusillade from a machine gun, yet all the bullets miss). Then Kaspar’s body is found in the East River.

More threatening notes arrive. One of them contains a clue leading to an empty building in the Bronx. Vance and Heath encounter the gang with deadly results.

Review:

The kidnapping case is full of the usual cliches: a ransom note comprised of words cut from a newspaper, and a demand to leave the ransom in a hollow tree at midnight. So far, it looks like a plot for the Hardy Boys. The odd notes are: How does one kidnap a non-cooperative full grown adult out a bedroom window and down a ladder? Why is the Homicide Bureau out in force investigating, when there is no homicide? Then, how is the kidnap victim’s wife abducted in the same manner?

Vance’s character is quite different from before. No longer content to sit back smoking and making long, rambling pedantic sermons; this Vance is out chasing kidnappers and engaging in gun battles. He disposes of the three of the gang, with the usual “Oh well, it’s for the best” response from the authorities.

Fair-play readers will take some issue with three characters not being introduced until the final denouement, as well as the breaking of Fifth Commandment of Robert Knox's Rules of Fair Play: "No Chinaman must figure in the story".

This is the last of the S. S. Van Dine novels written in the usual sequence. The following two (The Gracie Allen Murder Case and The Winter Murder Case) were reverse-written after the films were made. Please also note pejorative terms used for persons of Chinese ancestry as well as African-Americans.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Garden Murder Case (1935)



Major characters:


  • Philo Vance, the dilettante detective
  • John F. X. Markham, District Attorney
  • Ernest Heath, sergent, Homicide squad
  • Ephraim Garden, professor of chemistry
  • Martha Garden, his wife
  • Floyd Garden, their son
  • Zalia Graem, friend of Floyd
  • Cecil Kroon, friend of Floyd
  • Woode Swift, nephew of Ephraim & Martha, a too-heavy better
  • Lowe Hammle
  • Madge Weatherby
  • Bernice Beeton, nurse


Locale: New York City

Synopsis: The Gardens live in a penthouse of a NYC skyscraper. They also own the garden area on the rooftop. They periodically have a party with their horse racing enthusiast friends, and place bets by phone while listening to the races on the radio.

Philo Vance gets a phone call tipping him off that the upcoming party bears watching. He is a slight acquaintance of the Gardens and attends the party. Woode Swift has a habit of placing large bets, then going to the rooftop garden during the race to listen to the results in solitude. Swift plunges and places $10,000 on the horse Equanimity - who loses. Moments after news of the race results are on the radio, a shot is heard from the roof. Swift is found dead. Vance takes a quick look at the body and declares it murder.

It turns out there were two successive shots: the killer shot, and a red herring shot, but which is which? The close timing of the two is critical.

During the investigation phase, nurse Bernice Beeton is discovered trapped in the "vault", a secure storage room, with a broken bottle of bromine gas intended to do her in. Vance finds her in time.

Next matriarch Martha Garden is found to have died overnight in bed, with her prescription bottle empty beside her. 

Vance sets up a trap to catch the killer. 

Review:

The book provides some interesting insights into the horse racing world, and the description of the gathering, placing bets and listening to results on the radio is an interesting insight into the world of the 1930's. The book follows the usual Van Dine formula of the wealthy family whose members do not trust each other. When the matriarch, Martha, announces to the family that she is some annoyed and is going to change her will the next day, you just know she won't make it though the night. (Moral: If you are going to cut someone out of your will, do it before you tell them). 

The killer is unmasked in a typical Van Dine trick - nothing the police would condone these days, but back in the 1930's Van Dine's police just sat back and watched the fun; knowing in the end that Vance's vigilante justice would mean no need for a prosecution.

Side note: 
I was peeved that Lowe Hammle, introduced as "fifty or thereabouts" is listed as "elderly" in the list of characters!

For a thorough synopsis and review, I invite you to see Bev Hankin's review on her blog, MY READER'S BLOCK.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Casino Murder Case (1934)

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Major characters:

  • Philo Vance, the dilettante detective
  • John F. X. Markham, District Attorney
  • Ernest Heath, sergent, Homicide squad
  • Mrs. Anthony Llewellyn - prominent social worker
  • Richard Kincaid - her brother, and owner of the Casino
  • Amelia Llewellyn - her daughter, an art student
  • Lynn Llewellyn - her son, a night club lizard and gambler
  • Virginia Llewellyn - Lynn Llewellyn's wife, formerly Virginia Vale, stage star
  • Smith, the Llewellyn butler
  • Morgan Bloodgood - croupier at Kincaid's Casino
  • Dr. Allan Kane, friend of the Llewellyns
  • Dr. Rogers



Locale: New York City


Synopsis: Philo Vance receives an anonymous letter indicating some harm is to come to members of the Llewellyn family and they should be watched, especially on a certain date. Vance contacts D.A. John F. X. Markham. Vance then visits Kincaid's Casino on the indicated date, to keep an eye on Lynn Llewellyn. While gambling, Lynn collapses and a doctor immediately recognizes it as poison. No sooner is he hospitalized when word comes that his wife, Virginia Llewellyn, has died at home from poisoning.

Soon after that, Amelia Llewellyn also is poisoned, but recovers. The common thread to the poisonings is that each victim drank water just before falling ill.


Review:

This mystery is quite enjoyable for a S. S. Van Dine story. Philo Vance is more human and less pedantic than we have seen him in previous books, with none of the long, diversionary sermons on antiquities or other unrelated topics. As this is the eighth book in the series, perhaps the writer had taken some of the reviews into consideration by this point. 

The plot takes on an interesting twist as suspicion is placed in one direction, and it appears the solution is at hand - but at the last moment it turns out to be a false trail. The final scene contains high tension and an alarming development as Vance unmasks the killer.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

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Major characters:






  • Philo Vance, the dilettante detective
  • John F. X. Markham, District Attorney
  • Ernest Heath, sergent, Homicide squad
  • Archer Coe, collector of Chinese ceramics
  • Brisbane Coe, his brother
  • Raymond Wrede, friend of the Coes
  • Hilda Lake, niece of Archer Coe, engaged to Raymond Wrede
  • Signor Eduardo Grassi, officer in the Milan Museum of Oriental Antiquities
  • Liang Tsung Wei, the Coe cook
  • Gamble, the Coe butler
  • Luke Enright, an importer
  • Major Julius Higginbottom, dog breeder
  • Miss MacTavish, a Scottie dog
  • Doris Delafield, owner of Miss MacTavish


  • Locale: New York City

    Synopsis: District Attorney John F. X. Markham is summoned to the scene of a murder, and as usual, invites his more perceptive friend Philo Vance along. At the residence of Archer Coe, they find he is apparently dead in a locked room - they can see him sprawled through the keyhole. They break in to find he has been shot. The medical examiner arrives, and finds Coe was dead long before he was shot, adding another mystery. 

    During the investigation an injured Scottie dog is discovered in the house, and no one recognizes it, or knows how it got in. There is also evidence a valuable Chinese vase has been broken, and an inferior piece substituted in its place. A search is started for Coe's brother, Brisbane Coe, who was in the house when all this happened. Eventually he is found - dead - in a closet in the home. 

    The Scottie dog seems to be the key. If they can trace the dog and find its owner, some light can be shed on the murders.

    Review:

    Despite the title, the book does not have any connection to a kennel, other than a brief visit to one late in the book. This is a locked-room mystery with a pile of loose ends: a victim who was dead before he was shot, a brother also murdered, a mystery dog injured, a broken vase, a missing weapon. 

    While delving into the worlds of ancient Chinese ceramics as well as dog breeding, the reader need not be knowledgable of either to enjoy the book. These side topics are minor. The big mystery is why and how is a dead man shot inside a locked room. The rundown of clues is standard police procedure and leads to the solution. 

    The book includes the usual S. S. Van Dine lectures and footnotes on obscure topics which may be skipped over. Was he being paid by the word?



    Thursday, May 3, 2018

    The Dragon Murder Case (1933)

    dustjackets.com

    Major characters:

    • Philo Vance, the dilettante detective
    • John F. X. Markham, District Attorney
    • Ernest Heath, sergent, Homicide squad
    • Sanford "Monty" Montague, engaged to Bernice Stamm
    • Rudolf Stamm, hard-drinking fish collector, and owner of the Stamm estate
    • Matilda Stamm, his mother, who seems to predict the future with 100% accuracy
    • Bernice Stamm, his daughter
    • Gale Leland, neighbor and friend of the family
    • Alex Greeff, stockbroker and guest of the Stamms
    • Kirwin Tatum, guest of the Stamms
    • Teeny McAdam, guest of the Stamms
    • Ellen Bruett, writer of love letter to Sanford Montague
    • Ruby Steele, actress
    • Trainor, the Stamm butler
    • Mrs. Schwarz, nurse-companion to Mrs. Stamm
    • Doctor Holliday, Stamm family physician

    Locale: Inwood (northern Manhattan), New York City

    Synopsis: This is a locked-room mystery, but the room is a pool! Sanford Montague dives into the "Dragon Pool" (a small pond) on his property and never comes up. Where did he go? Is he dead or alive? He is thought to have run off with Ellen Bruett, who wrote a note arranging a meeting that night. When he does not reappear, the pool is drained, and his body is not in it. However, there are strange foot and claw marks on the hard bottom of the pool.

    Matilda Stamm, elderly mother of hard-drinking Rudolf Stamm, is convinced there is a dragon that lives in the pool, and protects the Stamm family by killing its enemies. This is supported by the fact there have been two deaths in the pool already. She states the dragon then flies away with its victims to dispose of their bodies elsewhere.

    Nearby are several deep glacial pot-holes. The body of Montague is found in one, mutilated by claws, and apparently dropped from a height. Some time later, Alex Greeff goes missing. His body is likewise found in the same place, again mutilated and dropped.

    Philo Vance rounds up the key to a family vault located near the pool, and enters it to find that it is connected with the deaths.

    Review:

    This is my favorite Philo Vance novel. The murders are so unique and outlandish, and all evidence points to the legendary dragon being the culprit. Philo Vance seeks out the truth by eliminating all other possibilities. The novel stays on topic for the most part, except for a several page diversion as Vance displays his knowledge of various tropical fish.